The Science of Psychology

The scientific study of human nature

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The Problem of Consciousness

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Despite the many other obvious similarities to our fellow creatures, human consciousness seems to be a qualitatively different phenomenon from what is observed in all other species we know about, even those that appear to be most genetically similar to us.  Human consciousness is at once self-sufficient and yet goal-directed in a way that is categorically different than that of other 'conscious' species. (See, e.g., Dennett, 1992, Chalmers, 1997, Blackmore, 2003, and many other excellent sources).

Human consciousness is not a unitary or linear process, nor does it resemble any other phenomenon, in any branch of study, in any meaningful way.  It is not a movie screen onto which external reality is reflected, a film captured by  the lens of attention.  Consciousness does  not result from a sequential progression of attention, a mental watch ticking reliably from one thought or perception to the next.

Despite our normal experience of being generally "in charge" of our thoughts and behaviors, no evidence of a supreme command center has yet been found in the brain or mind.  To date, research suggests instead that the mind (loosely what we think of as our "self") operates more like a committee or society than like a chief executive.

Many, undoubtedly most, of the mindís functions are unconscious Ė that is, they are hidden from (or transparent to) consciousness.  In most cases, these automated mental processes are essential and advantageous, freeing up consciousness to handle other important work, such as objective evaluation and long-term planning.

However, it should be clear that our overt (and covert) behavior is rarely as rationally motivated or managed as we perceive it to be: nature did not specifically design the mind to be logical, but rather to produce thoughts, feelings and actions that are likely to enhance survival and social functioning, and thereby improve the reproductive probability of the individual and the continuation of our reciprocity group.

Fortunately, consciousness also likely influences how the unconscious works, in part by selecting or emphasizing the material it has to work with.  That is, the mind can be trained to be more logical-rational than it would otherwise be, but the unconscious seems nonetheless to remain susceptible to the influence of emotions and heuristics.

Personal reality is necessarily recreated (or created) by each individualís mind, and may be more or less accurately correspondent to the presumed external reality as described by "hard" scientists -- physicists, chemists, mathematicians and biologists.

At the level of complex systems (such as living creatures), nature appears to favor variation, and this principle is illustrated by the diversity seen among individual human beings as well as human reciprocity groupings known as tribes, cultures and  societies.

The distinction (if there is one) between normal but extreme human variation and psychopathology is not yet well understood.  The effects of both situation (environment) and heritability on the expression of many forms of mental illness is very well documented.  Even that collection of characteristics known as personality appears to be heavily influenced both by opportunity (environment) and inherited tendencies.